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Gareth Southgate has resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes to his England squad for Euro 2024 qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia, but the inclusion of Crystal Palace’s Eberechi Eze offers fresh and exciting input.
England will be overwhelming favourites in both games and it might have been understandable if Southgate had chosen to rest key members of his squad after a gruelling campaign, which included the World Cup in Qatar before Christmas.
Instead, Southgate’s selection has a familiar look as England prepare for the visit to Malta then a meeting with North Macedonia at Old Trafford, after opening their quest to reach the Euros in Germany next summer with victories in Italy and at home to Ukraine.
Eze’s first call-up to the senior squad is the most eye-catching move and a fully-deserved reward for the 24-year-old who has flourished under one of Southgate’s England predecessors, Roy Hodgson, at Crystal Palace, where he has scored six goals in his last eight games.
He has also shown resilience and determination to fully recover from a serious Achilles tendon injury that resulted in a lengthy absence after he was making his way into Southgate’s thoughts.
Now Eze is back and has the chance to make a big impact following a season in which he has 10 goals and four assists in 39 appearances, and where he will be joined in the England squad by Palace team-mate defender Marc Guehi, who is also included.
Southgate names England squad for Euro qualifiersReaction to England squad announcementEze comes in as a replacement for Chelsea’s Raheem Sterling, the 28-year-old dropping out after talks with Southgate following a first season at Stamford Bridge in which he has had injuries but also very indifferent form.
Sterling’s place would surely have been in jeopardy anyway, but now he can rest and prepare to start next season ready to fight to regain his place before the Euros.Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, so often the subject of debate whenever Southgate picks an England squad, is in and it will be intriguing to see where he operates after Jurgen Klopp started to use him in a more offensive role, pushed further forward at Anfield.
Brighton’s Lewis Dunk, who won one full cap against the USA in 2018, is back after an outstanding season at club level, while Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings returns to the England squad after an upturn in form inspired by Unai Emery’s appointment as his club manager.
He did not appear to have the full trust of Emery’s Villa’s predecessor Steven Gerrard, who not only left him out on occasions but also handed the club captaincy to John McGinn, despite Mings having the armband after Jack Grealish’s departure to Manchester City.
Southgate clearly had to weigh up the importance of this England double-header with the physical strains imposed on players this season.
The Manchester City quintet of Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Kalvin Phillips, John Stones and Kyle Walker are involved in the Champions League final against Inter Milan in Istanbul on 10 June before joining up, while West Ham United captain Declan Rice figures in the Europa Conference League final against Fiorentina in Prague three days earlier.
The England manager said: “We are always mindful of the welfare of players and we have to allow players time to recuperate but not de-condition physically. Like every other country, we have important qualification matches on our way to Germany. We have picked a strong squad and the players always enjoy coming here. I think we will manage it as well as we can.”Southgate has remained loyal to those who have served him well.
Manchester United captain Harry Maguire, who is clearly surplus to the requirements of manager Erik ten Hag, keeps his place along with Phillips, who only made his first Premier League appearance for Manchester City in the 1-0 win over Chelsea on Sunday following his £45m move from Leeds United last summer.
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One obvious absentee is Brentford’s Ivan Toney, who will be serving an eight-month ban for breaching Football Association betting rules. Southgate, however, has the ideal replacement in Newcastle United’s Callum Wilson, who went to the World Cup in Qatar and has since played a pivotal role in his club reaching the Champions League for the first time in 20 years.
England must have the expectation of emerging from meeting with Malta and North Macedonia with maximum points from four straight wins at the start of their qualifying campaign, but Southgate is understandably taking no chances despite such a taxing season for his players.